Wednesday, January 30, 2019

John Cardinal O’Connor, 1920-2000

By Nicholas Stix
May 4, 2000 (?)

I am not a religious man, and yet I feel blessed. I got off a plane from then-West Germany at Kennedy Airport on August 26, 1985, less than seven months after John O’Connor had been promoted from bishop of Scranton to archbishop of New York. And during the past 15 years, Cardinal O’Connor has been perhaps the only unambiguously good thing about this dark, soulless place. That’s “was,” because as of 8:15 p.m. last night, John Cardinal O’Connor is no more.

Everyone could see it coming — first the brain tumor, and then after “treatment,” the increasing frailness, and the informal yet unmistakable goodbye of his recent public letter. Over a month ago, I had told my wife that I would write a letter to the cardinal, one that one of his assistants might read to him, as he could no longer see. But the letter did not write itself, and I didn’t write it, either.

I never met or spoke with, or corresponded with the man, and I have rarely felt a bond with, much less love for a public figure. And yet, I loved John Cardinal O’Connor. The bond was surely based on our commonalities: I’m a Jew and an agnostic, and he was a conservative Catholic fighter for the faith.

In the encomium-filled days to come, we must remember that this was a man whom Gloria Steinem described as one of the two worst things about New York, the other being AIDS.

But Gloria was an amateur, compared to SCREW magazine publisher, Al Goldstein. SCREW, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a New York magazine that advertises prostitutes of all persuasions. I was looking not for love, but for money in the all the wrong places, seeking to sell ad space to some of the working girls for a non-sex- oriented publication whose entire profit margin was based on such ads. It turned out that the working girls were the world’s toughest sell. They were used to screwing people over, not to getting screwed.

In the midst of this er, publication, what should I see, but a huge photograph of the cardinal? Publisher Al Goldstein — I’m sure the words were his own — had put a fictional monologue into the cardinal’s mouth, something like, “After I’ve finished screwing an altar boy ... nothing gives me more pleasure than to run out to the street, and pick up the newest issue of SCREW.

Goldstein was obviously imitating Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who had once committed a notorious attack on the Rev. Jerry Falwell that landed him in court.

In an age of hype, it sounds banal to call Goldstein’s act an “outrage.” Indeed, what once became a First Amendment case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, had by the end of the millennium become a commonplace unworthy of note. But this sort of attack was exactly what the word “outrage” was meant to apply to!

And yet, there was a perverse honor to the business. Al Goldstein had concentrated his sexual obsessions not on some prissy feminist who had slept her way to success, but on a man who bestrode New York like a collossus. Nietzsche liked to say, “Viele Feinde, viel Ehr.’” “Many enemies, much honor.” But unlike so many little, public people — celebrities, we call them — who live off the limelight, but cry boohoo, or sue or slug their critics, O’Connor was the kind of happy warrior who in an earlier age would have been called a hero. And whom I revere as a hero.

The cardinal ignored the pornographer to death.

O’Connor was always going into harm’s way, whether as a Navy chaplain for 27 years in Korea and Vietnam (he retired a rear admiral), or in New York with his stands against abortion, homosexuality, and the death penalty, and for more social programs. In all of the preceding cases, he was following church teachings, something that the most vocal religious, and even bishops, seemed to have utterly forgotten. If Reform Judaism long consisted (though not necessarily at the moment) of nothing but Enlightenment atheism plus matzo brei, many leaders of the Church of St. Peter seem to be Reform Jews, but without the matzo brei.

The cardinal’s most amazing personal characteristic was, that he didn’t hate his enemies. He didn’t hate homosexuals, he loved them, as brothers and sisters in Christ. He prayed for them, and asked them to pray for him, in turn. Had he hated them, he could have, would have (and I think, should have!) had them dealt with very harshly by New York’s Finest, during activists’ frequent trespasses into St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The activists were fond of desecrating the Host (stomping on communion wafers), and engaging in other obscene acts that you didn’t have to be a Catholic to abhor.

Recall too, that the NYPD is still a majority Catholic force — all those Irishmen and Italians and Puerto Ricans. They would have done the right thing, had the cardinal asked them to. Unlike his predecessor, Terence Cardinal Cooke, John Cardinal O’Connor not only met with gay activists, but made a point of shaking their hands, which Cooke’s secretary had pointedly refused to do, when he had met with them years earlier. And no gay activist — or anyone else — came close to what the cardinal did for AIDS patients, ministering to them in their last days, in church-run hospices.

I hadn’t known that he had a Ph.D. in political science, but I don’t hold it against him. O’Connor was so smart, you wouldn’t know that he’d spent so many years in academia. He had the sort of vital intellect that permitted him to quip spontaneously on the street, and not only let gut feelings enter into his thinking, which we all do, but do so openly.

While writing on the cardinal, journalist Nat Hentoff, a Jewish atheist who opposes abortion, developed a lasting friendship with him. Hentoff called Cardinal O’Connor, “the Genghis Khan of the Catholic Church.” However, in 1987, Hentoff crossed swords with his friend. After it had come out that sitting Austrian President and former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had in fact been a Nazi, Pope John Paul II had given Waldheim a private audience at the Vatican. A livid Hentoff brought out the brickbats in his Village Voice column. In the second volume of his autobiography, Speaking Freely (the first volume was called, Boston Boy), Hentoff quoted from the personal letter O’Connor had sent him, in response:

“‘Dear Nat,

“‘Your Village Voice article disappointed me, not because of your criticism of the Waldheim-Pope episode, which was arguably criticizable, or your judging my remarks meaningless (although I would obviously prefer flagellation to being considered meaningless). Your article disappointed me because you cheapened it by including a shotgun attack on the Church .... beating the Pope over the head and shoulders for every conceivable offense (at least you didn’t berate him for being Polish), and generally clouding your thesis with a squid-like venom quite uncharacteristic of your normal writing.

“‘By way of your own account, I was aware of and sincerely pained by what you suffered at the hands of Catholics as the Boston Boy. In that account your sufferings were no less real and moved me to no less sadness because you chose to recount them in and with good humor. Whatever the demerits of the Waldheim-Pope affair, your relating it to your childhood came through to me as more vendetta than pain. Again uncharacteristic of your writing....

“‘You are a good man, a good friend, a good writer, and quite possibly a better Jew than you may have realized. I believe you missed a useful opportunity, and for that I’m sorry.”

Hentoff commented, “As angry as the cardinal had become, I was angrier. I had just begun to write a column for the Voice that would fully, fairly, and nastily focus that anger on O’Connor when another letter from him came. It was short: ‘Now that I have won that argument, let us proceed. You may recall how Belloc ends his Path to Rome: “So let us love one another and laugh. Time passes and we shall soon laugh no longer. Meanwhile, earnest men are at siege upon us all around. So let us laugh and suffer absurdities, for that is only to suffer one another.

Hentoff confessed, “I couldn’t help laughing at the boldness of his strategy of reconciliation, and I didn’t write a column answering his first letter.

Bold yet gentle, combative yet conciliatory. Those were but a few of the sides of the giant no longer in our midst. I don’t know how I’m going to swing this, but in memory of John Cardinal O’Connor, I am going to try and not give in to the hatred that I so often feel towards my enemies.
Rest in peace.

Originally published in Toogood Reports.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Goldstein. Jewish pornographer. Hate to say and Nicholas will understand but 80 % of the pornographers in America are Jewish.